Following the Gaza War on the TikTok Battleground

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Border police officers confronting a protester in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood this week.
Border police officers confronting a protester in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood this week.Credit: Mahmoud Illean/AP

One TikTok clip shows Arab teenagers stoning a car as it goes around a traffic circle. The text on the screen explains, “They struck a Jewish-owned car,” followed by a laughter emoji. This was in Wadi Ara, northern Israel. The clip was uploaded by an eighth-grader. During the past week he has been going to protests he hears about on Instagram or TikTok.

“I have 1,200 followers on TikTok,” the boy claims. “I uploaded attacks on Jews which got tens of thousands of views.”

He attends the demonstrations because of the occupation, the injustices in Jerusalem and Gaza and the inequality in Israel, he says. “Katzir and Harish, the neighboring Jewish cities, have developed,” he explains. “And we, in the Arab villages and cities, don’t receive equal distribution of state funding.”

The first demonstration he attended was actually a joint Jewish-Arab protest.

A young Arab man being detained in Jerusalem's Old City, posted to TikTok by Ali Asawa.

His older brother, a ninth grader, also gets updates on demonstrations via social media. He joins the protests mainly out of boredom, he admits, but adds: “I saw an Arab murdered in Lod. I saw pictures of children killed in Gaza. How can I not go out and protest?”

The boys’ mother doesn’t hide her worry. 

“I went out to the main road during the last demonstration and found them wearing masks,” she recalls, not referring to COVID masks.

Using social networks to promote demonstrations is nothing new. Many attribute the rise of the Arab Spring and its spread across the Middle East to young people on Facebook, among other reasons. Now the younger generation uses TikTok and Instagram. TikTok, which is especially popular among the younger members of Gen-Z, enables users to upload short video clips and broadcast live, and easily create new video clips in response to other clips.

An Instagram post documenting a protest in the West Bank.

During the last week, young Arabs and Jews took over TikTok. The most popular videos uploaded by the Arab participants were clips of protests, riots and informational videos about the situation in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and Gaza. In some videos they shame Arab members of the Israeli police or security forces, calling them traitors and revealing their personal details. Many of the videos are broadcast live, and show inflammatory reactions on both sides.

One Canadian-Syrian teenager made a particularly popular clip in which he tries to convey the Palestinian narrative about Sheikh Jarrah using his own home in a Canadian suburb. Some clips show security forces arresting young Arabs in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and others focus on the riots at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem.

The video by Canadian-Syrian teen Instagrammer Saifshawaf.

“TikTok is full of the events in Jerusalem, at Damascus Gate and Al-Aqsa,” said Murad, 18, who joined a quiet demonstration in Jaffa after learning about it on TikTok. “What’s happening shows that we are part of one nation, and I thank TikTok for allowing us to be exposed to international solidarity.”

Juwad, 13, also said that he found encouragement to go out and demonstrate on TikTok. “It is full of information about protests and about events,” he said. “Everyone is spreading the word! These videos are getting tons of views.”

Another demonstrator said that he broadcasts the protests live on Instagram, and also uploads informational content about Sheikh Jarrah to his TikTok account.

“There has been a retreat in the role of the national Arab leadership in recent years, and social networks have filled this vacuum,” said a Haifa activist, who asked to have his name withheld. “The messages speak to the young people because they use their language.”

Language aside, another reason for the draw of the social networks is that Israeli Arabs don’t appear on the major media outlets.

A video at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound posted on TikTok by Walid Omer.

Last weekend Palestinian and foreign users complained on Instagram that accounts mentioning Sheikh Jarrah or Al-Aqsa were restricted in various ways. The NGO 7aleh: Palestinian Digital Rights Coalition received over 200 reports about deleted posts and suspended Instagram accounts. Reuters reported on Monday that Instagram and Twitter blamed technical glitches for the deleted posts.

TikTok stated in February that “We remove misinformation as we identify it”, and if fact-checking shows content to be false, the video gets deleted. When fact checks are inconclusive or if it cannot confirm content, especially during unfolding events, “a video may become ineligible for recommendation into anyone’s For You feed to limit the spread of potentially misleading information,” the company explained.

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